Hangover cure: Scientist debunks a popular drinking myth
It was too good to be true.
If you’ve ever woken up after drinking a little too much the night before only to feel like the husk of your former self, then you’ve experienced the acute pain of a hangover.
A throbbing headache, dry mouth, queasy stomach, and overall disillusionment with the concept of being a person are some tell-tale signs of this self-inflicted ailment. But while hangovers thoroughly suck, a day spent feeling sorry for yourself may not be enough to convince you to give up booze or even cut back.
Rather, you may want to make that headache go away fast, and for some, the most magical cure can only be the “hair of the dog.” If you drink a little more of the thing that caused the pain in the first place, maybe, as this folk wisdom promises, your hangover will subside.
If this cure seems too good to be true, that’s because it is. But it isn’t entirely false, either.
Gillian Bruce, a senior social science lecturer at the University of the West of Scotland whose research focuses on substance abuse and alcohol hangovers, tells Inverse that there is only one sure way to avoid a hangover — but it may not be the magic bullet you’re hoping for.
“There is truth in the myth,” Bruce says. “[But] what isn’t reported is the very temporary nature of the relief.”
Origin of the Myth: ‘Hair of the dog’
The phrase “the hair of the dog” is actually just a segment of another phrase — “hair of the dog that bit you.” The phrase originally referred to a supposed cure for rabies. It speaks to an idea that underscores old “cures” used across the world, including in Scotland in the 1800s as described by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer in the 1898 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.
The belief was that you could cure rabies by drinking a concoction containing a piece of literal hair from the dog that bit you. The same logic is used to describe “cures” to other ailments, too, like hangovers.
“The alcohol hangover... is not 100 percent fully understood.”
Of course, modern science shows why you can’t cure rabies by ingesting animal hair. And Bruce says that treating your hangover from the night before with a bloody mary the next morning may be just as foolhardy.
What is a hangover?
To cure a hangover, it would help if scientists could agree on what exactly a hangover even is, Bruce says.
“While numerous studies have shown that the alcohol hangover occurs as our blood alcohol level approaches zero, the exact mechanisms that occur in our bodies are still not 100 percent fully understood,” Bruce says.
“What is clear is that there are many different processes that combine to produce the general misery that accompanies the alcohol hangover.”
According to Bruce, dehydration used to be the prevailing theory behind hangovers. This theory states that drinking too much alcohol (somewhat counterintuitively) makes you dehydrated and thus have a headache. But more recent research suggests other biological changes, like inflammation, for example, and even psychological factors may also be at play when it comes to a hangover.
“We are making progress in exploring this,” Bruce says.
Does “the hair of the dog” work for hangovers?
The science behind the “hair of the dog” legend is complicated as the science of hangovers themselves. At the most fundamental level, the idea of drinking more alcohol to dissipate a hangover is not without scientific evidence, Bruce says — but it may have more drawbacks than benefits.
“It is true that a ‘hair of the dog’ may lessen the symptoms temporarily,” Bruce says. “But in reality, all that it is doing is delaying the hangover symptoms.”
Hangovers develop when our blood alcohol levels — which spike during drinking — fall back to zero. Consuming more alcohol to keep your blood levels from going back down to zero in the first place may make you feel less terrible for a time, Bruce explains, but it is just putting off the inevitable.
“You are likely to feel worse for longer.”
“Alcohol levels will quickly return to approaching zero, and the general misery associated with the alcohol hangover will also return,” she says.
“You are likely to feel worse for longer.”
Still, why do today what you can put off till tomorrow? The real problem though is when people become dependent on this kind of “cure,” Bruce says, or when they self-medicate with more alcohol to treat their withdrawal symptoms from alcohol abuse.
“This is more dangerous as it maintains problematic drinking patterns,” Bruce says.
How to really cure your hangover
There is one sure-fire way to avoid a hangover, according to Bruce. It may not be a popular answer, however.
“The first, and most obvious, is not to drink to excess,” she says.
“If you are going to drink too much, choosing drinks which have lower levels of congeners [for example, tannins] such as white spirits are a good idea.”
In other words, swapping red wine for white might help alleviate any hangover you might have the next day.
Another option is to swap alcoholic drinks for “zero proof” liquors — these are basically alcohol-free drinks made to taste like liquor — like Seedlip, which markets its drinks as a gin substitute, or Three Spirit, which advertises its wares as alternatives to the spirits you might mix favorite drinks with, like vodka or rum.
But if you drink alcohol, then Bruce says the best — and science-backed — way to get through a hangover is to manage your symptoms. Doing simple things, like eating a balanced meal to “counteract the drop in blood sugar that accompanies the alcohol hangover,” drinking plenty of water or an electrolyte-rich beverage (Gatorade!), can help you on the road to recovery.
Over-the-counter medicines like Tylenol or Asprin may also help counteract a sore head, but Bruce says to be wary of “cures” that promise to make your hangover disappear. These kinds of over-the-counter elixirs, tonics, and supplements are often not rigorously tested, Bruce says, and might be a waste of money.
If nothing else, Bruce says, you can always sleep it off — but unfortunately, this only really works after the hangover has hit.
“Sleep can also be helpful as while heavily intoxicated it may seem that we are in a very deep sleep, the quality of the sleep is much reduced,” she says.
CHECK, PLEASE is an Inverse series that uses biology, chemistry, and physics to debunk the biggest food myths and assumptions.
Now read this: Scientists debunk the “soy boys” food myth.